In the world of gaming it is hard to find one particular website that can consistently be both funny and informative (TGR notwithstanding of course). Most gamers are quick to point out when any particular venue falls into a spate of fanboyism or behaves in a particularly alarmist fashion, and while there are a handful of highly respected sites, almost all of them have their fair share of detractors. This is not always the case however, as one site always seems to rise above it all.
Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (or Tycho and Gabe as they are known to the world), are the special minds behind what may very well be the web’s most beloved comic, Penny Arcade. In their adventures, Tycho and Gabe are constantly matching wits with nefarious game store clerks, doing their best not to kill each other and occasionally battling ancient and seething evil. In between adventures, our digital friends provide thoughtful, detailed analysis on some of gaming’s biggest stories using a level of eloquence and logic that is hard to come by in today’s “My console can beat up your console” world. Therefore, I, like many others, felt my knees buckle when word came that there would be a Penny Arcade game, or rather a series of games, released on Xbox Live. Today was the day for the first release, and it quickly proved it was well worth the wait.
Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode One (whew, what a title), begins inauspiciously enough, with a character the player has created raking his leaves on an autumn afternoon in New Arcadia in the glorious year of 1922. The character creator, while not incredibly deep, serves a higher purpose, as the representative you fashion is rendered into all the game’s cutscenes and comic panels just as lovingly and accurately as Tycho and Gabe themselves. While you may not be able to create a truly unique or wacky character, it is all made worth it to see what you do make seamlessly woven into the very fabric of the game.
At any rate, while you are tending to your lawn, a giant mechanical fruit f***er comes traipsing through and proceeds to stomp your house into oblivion. Tycho and Gabe are in hot pursuit, and you, furious at now being homeless, go charging after with rake in hand. You’ll soon find that machine’s which sodomize fruit aren’t your only problem though, as a much deeper conspiracy begins to unfold featuring hobos, mimes, clowns and even barbershop quartets. Oh yes, the rabbit hole goes deep, and you’re just scratching the surface.
What makes the story even more interesting is the presentation. Conversations take place in comic-inspired speech bubbles, and cutscenes are conveyed in a series of panels. Even better, Mike and Jerry themselves wrote the script for the game, so you’ll see their distinct brand of humor flowing throughout. There is just something about walking up to a trash can and having the text read, “This can is full of cats. They’re cool, they seem to be having a good time,” or meandering up to car to see, “This model comes in black, jet black, ebony or soot,” that has the power to cause laughter at every turn. Indeed, you’ll likely find yourself exploring every conversation option, checking every single item and bugging every NPC you meet just to see what they’re going to say next.
Really, the only disappointment stemming from the presentation of things is that, aside from the NPCs you need to interact with in order to advance the story, nobody else has a whole lot to say. All the random strangers you meet in any given level will all say the exact same thing (they must be possessed by evil parrots), and Tycho and Gabe will only offer a sentence or two as it pertains to your next objective. This isn’t a major flaw though; as you’ll likely be too busy inspecting crabs and checking flaming barrels to even care that your friends don’t seem very chatty.
The gameplay itself is pure RPG, featuring active-time combat and a fairly extensive item inventory. As battles play out, gauges fill first for items, then for basic attacks and then for special moves. Each special features a specific minigame (timed button presses, button mashing, etc.) in order to allow you to maximize damage. If you really want to bring the hurt however, you can wait until two or even all three of your characters’ special meters are full and then unleash a much more damaging team strike. Obviously the catch is that you have to wait longer to attack, so it becomes a matter of whether it is more effective to whittle away small chunks of a foe’s health, or wait and try and go for the kill all at once.
In addition to your three main characters, during the course of the adventure you are joined by Thomas Kemper the cat, Anne Clare (Tycho’s niece), and a surprise third character who act as your support squad. These extras are basically “summons” who can be called in when they’re gauges fill in order to aide you with their special attacks. The most amusing of the three is Thomas Kemper who, normally when summoned will simply groom himself and cause one point of damage, but holds a one-in-two-million chance of producing a hairball so massive, that it will utterly destroy anything.
To add yet another layer of depth to the combat, the title also features a large inventory of items, all of which you will need to utilize in order to be successful. Aside from your standard healing devices, there are a number of buffs and debuffs, as well as specific “distraction” items which only work on particular enemies and may give you a brief respite when you feel overwhelmed in combat. For a packrat such as me who tends to collect items in RPGs and never use them, the game forces you to use what you find constantly in order to survive battles.
With all these different elements combat can become somewhat complicated, and if you aren’t constantly monitoring the actions of your characters and the enemies, it’s easy to find yourself hurting pretty badly. While the menus are as streamlined as possible, it’s just nearly impossible to keep up with seven or eight characters on screen that are all acting at once. You’ll likely get the hang of it after a couple hours, but it still feels like things could have been a lot more manageable if the game were purely turn-based.
The only other significant flaw in the gameplay itself is the lack of upgrades for weapons and the complete lack of armor or accessories. While you can bring spare parts back to Anne Clare to upgrade your attack power, there is no way outside of leveling up to augment your defense or speed, and there is absolutely nothing out there (save perfectly defending from an attack) to protect you from status ailments. I remember one boss fight in particular where the enemy used an attack that hit everyone and reduced their attack power to an insanely low number. He used this attack at almost every opportunity (sometime two or three times in a row before I even had a chance to attack), and each time I found myself to be utterly puny. I ran out of strength boosting items quickly, and the rest of the battle basically consisted of me trying to shoehorn in special moves in the rare moments where my attack power was back to normal. It would have been nice to be able to equip an item which would prevent such a status effect on at least one character before heading in, but there’s nothing like that to be found anywhere.
Aside from a few gameplay decisions that seem to make the game harder than necessary, there’s very little about this game not to love. New Arcadia is presented in such a way that it seems to have leapt right off the e-pages of the comic and into the real world, and the relative lack of sound (this is a comic after all, not a cartoon), is offset by wonderful voice work from the narrator and a great song on the closing credits as composed by MC Frontalot. Everything about the game, from the dialogue and humor to the way the characters look and interact draws you in and makes you feel a part of the Penny Arcade Universe. Furthermore, even though the elements moving you forward are little more than a series of fetch quests, you’ll still likely have so much fun on the journey that you won’t even notice.
Truly, Penny Arcade Episode One is a must-buy for fans of the webcomic, and a strong recommendation for those who may be unfamiliar with the work but enjoy a good, challenging RPG. While the price is a bit steep at 1,600 Microsoft Points, it is a sound investment, especially with the promise of more episodes to follow in the coming months. For a funny, creative, funny, enjoyable, funny, challenging, funny game, look no further.